SWM, fiftyish, fit, youthful, friendly,
looking for companion to enjoy biking, hiking,
talking and other simple pleasures.
Live north side. Hope you do too. Let’s get together.
Like a lemming sensing the water, I drive east on Irving Park Road as fast as anyone moves in the rush hour of an August Friday evening. In the distance Howard waits.
The other lemmings in their shiny cars continue a mass migration from Irving Park Road toward Lake Michigan, as I swing right onto Sheridan Road. It looks as if they will all drown in the water, except that anyone who lives in Chicago knows that the Outer Drive runs right next to the shore and the lemmings will careen north or south just at the last dry moment.
Howard’s building is on the corner of Irving Park and Sheridan, and my red Volkswagen pulls into the circular driveway in front of it. I spot Howard, even though we have never met. He is the tall, thin man in jeans and a brown sport jacket looking here and there as he paces in front of the building’s entrance. He has the lean, studious look of a Rabbi.
There is another, larger car in front of mine that prevents me from offering him curb service, but he recognizes my car from the description I’d given on the phone.
Hands in jeans pockets, he walks toward me, stepping in front of my car to check the plate. This man is either very anxious or very cautious or he’s left my number with a neighbor in case we drive off together and he is never seen again.
He grabs for the door handle on the passenger’s side, but it fell off a couple years ago, leaving the door in the permanently closed position from the outside. I view it as extra protection from muggers who might jump into my car at a long stoplight, but the look on Howard’s face suggests he views it as an irritation. I lean over and open the door for him from the inside. Howard folds himself into my car.
“That’s rude,” he exclaims, without even introducing himself. I think he’s criticizing my car. But before I can apologize, he says: “Those people in front of you shouldn’t be parked there. This is a loading zone.”
With his left hand he reaches for my horn to tell them what he thinks. There isn’t time to mention that the horn broke about a year after the door handle fell off. Or that my radio died maybe a year before that. And I have a chronic leak in one tire that needs nursing regularly.
“Just go around them. You can make it.” Howard makes waving motions with his hand as he draws it back from my steering wheel. We still haven’t mastered formal introductions.
“Hi, Howard,” I say, smiling at him.
“Hi,” he responds while staring at the errant vehicle in front of us. “Just go around.”
This driver isn’t so sure – not only about the driveway situation but also about the cordiality of the persons involved — but she edges slowly forward. Too slowly for Howard. Having the working part of the car door handle at his disposal, he uses it to free himself. He jumps out of the car and marches up to the one blocking us to explain the difference between a loading zone and a parking lot. He leaves the passenger door of my car wide open in his wake, blocking the sidewalk for anyone passing by. Closing the door means I must get out of the car myself and walk around. It’s too much effort. It makes me wonder if Howard is worth the effort I’ve expended so far.
Howard’s ad appeared in the Reader for a month or so before I called him. There was nothing about it that set off bells or whistles, although it mentioned some of the things I like. However each week there’d been other, more interesting ads to pursue so “SWM fiftyish” sat on the back burner until a couple weeks ago
On the phone, Howard sounded thin. I don’t mean his body build; I mean his personality. As if there wasn’t really a lot of the meat of experience on his bones. He’d never married, never really ever been in love. He had done well in business and was retired, although he wanted me to know that the only thing he was retired from was the daily nine to five grind. Other than that, he was a busy man.
We talked a couple times, and it could have gone either way. When he invited me to dinner I said sure, but I would have been just as content if he’d never offered. Once I agreed, Howard made plans with relish.
“I know this charming little place in my neighborhood where we can talk,” Howard said. “It serves supper and I have a coupon for it, if you don’t mind.”
“Good,” he continued on the phone, organizing our first evening together. “We should go Dutch, because that way neither of us will feel obligated to the other. But I’m willing to subtract the coupon and just split the balance. How about it?”
I know my best friend, Allison, would never have agreed to this arrangement, but accommodation has been my middle name for so long that I answered to it again.
The morning of our date I woke with the flu. Not the queasy off-rhythm kind, but the honest-to-goodness-I-need-to-stay-close-to-a-bathroom kind. By noon, I was still hugging the commode and knew dinner with Howard wasn’t going to happen. In between roller coaster waves in my stomach, I found his number and left a cancellation notice on his machine.
As I dozed through the afternoon on my couch, having exhausted every last ounce of energy running back and forth to the bathroom, the phone rang. It was Howard.
“Of course we’ll go another time. Don’t think a thing about it. Are you okay? Shall I bring you some chicken soup?”
Over the next 48 hours, Howard called regularly, but not intrusively, letting me know the offer of chicken soup had no expiration date. His kindness was sweet. I’m a stranger. He didn’t owe me anything. It made me glad the illness was for real, because I’d have felt pretty cheap if I’d been lying to get out of the date.
That’s why I’m watching him gesture and growl in front of his apartment building. The car’s driver and Howard finish their debate, but it’s clear the parking lot mentality prevails. Howard returns in silence and climbs in unassisted. He slams my door with the violence he would like to inflict on the vehicle that won the discussion.
I do not want my passenger door to be the next thing that breaks on this car. Now that it and Howard are both firmly in place, I accelerate enough to force the left tires over the curb on their side, slip forward, and clear the other vehicle by inches. I’m ready to roll.
“Just park anywhere you can find a real spot” is Howard’s next directive. “The restaurant isn’t far.”
I turn right out of the driveway and onto Sheridan Road knowing that an empty parking space in this neighborhood is a futile pursuit. Regardless, we drive slowly around the block a couple times in search of one. Then I widen the circle to four blocks with no better success. Howard frets.
“If I had known there would be problems, I could have met you at the restaurant,” he says, appearing to apologize for my having to work so hard. But it comes out sounding as if my inability to park is inconveniencing him instead of me. I think of chicken soup and try not to form any pre-conceived notion of how the evening will play out.
“How far is it?”
“About six blocks from here. Maybe we should go by the restaurant and look for a space.”
“That sounds like a good game plan, but I still need to know which direction to take.”
“Turn right here.”
Howard doles out pieces of information, one at a time, as if they were last morsels of bread. Crumb by crumb, he guides us to the Jewel on Broadway that, by his recollection, is a mere half block from the restaurant. There are plenty of parking spaces, all at forty-five degree angles, although it doesn’t matter because I am a master at parallel parking. Naturally, Howard knows which space I should pull into. It’s the fourth one to the left of the supermarket’s main entrance.
I turn off the ignition, hike up the emergency brake, and grab my purse. He climbs out of the car on his side as I do the same on mine.
As we walk away, I notice a large white sign mounted on a pole about twenty feet in front of us. The words are bothersome:
PARKING FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY
ALL OTHER VEHICLES WILL BE TOWED
Howard notices my interest in this sign.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “People park here all the time. Besides, I know the manager.”
It’s hard to tell if this is the truth, but there is a simple test for it.
“Then would you mind going inside and letting him know that we are parking here just for a bite to eat?”
“Believe me, it isn’t necessary.”
“I really would feel more comfortable.”
“Trust me, it isn’t necessary.”
“Okay, as long as you are willing to pay the fine if I am towed.”
Howard rolls his eyes upwards and his shoulders downwards as he shoves his hands in his pockets and starts walking toward the supermarket instead of away from it. I can feel his brain waves, and they are telling him he’s got a difficult date on his hands. I wait by my car, because if the manager says to move it I plan to do so. But Howard really must know the manager, because soon he returns with a stocky gentleman and introduces him to me.
“Janet, this is Barry. I’ve already talked with him. He says we can park here.”
Barry nods his head for punctuation.
“No problem, no problem at all. Howard and I go way back.”
For a fleeting moment, I wonder how much Howard paid the guy to say that, but this is the man who chose a restaurant on the basis of a coupon. I thank Barry generously and he scuttles back to his store.
“See, I told you I knew him.”
“Yes, you did.”
This is definitely Mr. Right, Mr. Always Right.
We walk north half a block to Jezabel while Howard tells me how this charming little restaurant is becoming the ‘in’ place. He wanted to make sure we could get in, so he made reservations for 7:15.
Only Jezabel is nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a charming Italian restaurant named Angelina hugging the sidewalk and inviting passers-by to come in. I’m certainly willing.
Howard scratches his head. “I don’t understand; it was here before. It’s gone, it’s gone.”
As if he were looking for a lost set of keys, Howard begins to scour the sidewalk, the curb, the front of Angelina’s, his own shirt pocket for Jezabel.
“Something’s wrong, definitely wrong.”
Howard’s knack at pointing out the obvious begins to grate. So is his habit of repeating things. He rechecks the numbers on the doors to make sure we have the right address.
Angelina beckons me. It is a storefront that has been turned into a trattoria. Large windows that probably held displays in a former life to entice retail customers bank the entrance. The windows have sheer half-curtains that are light on privacy but heavy on charm. Little candles can be seen twinkling on the tables inside.
“Howard, you know, we’re late for our reservation. If you want to take a chance with Angelina’s, I’m agreeable.”
“No, the coupon is for Jezabel. I’ve driven by the place a jillion times,” Howard addresses a crack in the sidewalk. “I called to make a reservation; it must be here. If only I had my cell phone.”
Like a dog looking for the perfect spot, Howard turns around three times searching up and down the street for Jezabel’s. Only he doesn’t lie down on the sidewalk, content and sleepy. He paces back and forth, shaking his head in disbelief. Then an idea strikes.
“Maybe it’s on Clark instead of Broadway,” his head shakes from side to side. “That’s it; Clark. I have the numbers right, but the street is wrong. It’s Clark.”
It’s hard to tell if he really believes this or if he is just talking himself into it. Either way, we are on the wrong street, so I turn around and head back to the supermarket parking lot. I am not walking to Clark. We can drive over there and if Jezabel isn’t sticking out like a sore thumb, we can at least drive to some other restaurant, coupon or no. We retrace our steps and climb into my car.
“Turn right when you get out of the lot,” Howard must have a latent desire to be a traffic cop. “Go to Irving. Turn left. Go to Clark. Turn left again. It’s on Clark; I know it. We’ll find someplace over there to park.”
My body follows each order on automatic pilot while my mind comes up with new variations on four-letter words. If this were a Cape Canaveral rocket launch and the moment Howard got in my car at his apartment was lift-off, this evening is about thirty minutes into flight. Mission Control is mentally reviewing those flight documents known as telephone conversations that justify why she is here in the first place. Mission Control is evaluating her plan. The odds of an ABORT message are increasing.
We move south on Clark. I keep my little starship under tight control while my navigator peers out the window trying to identify numbers on buildings as if they were constellations in the heavens.
“Thirty-five ten, thirty-five twenty-three, thirty-five forty. We need to go further. It’s almost to Addison.”
He reads from one side of the street to the other, depending on which buildings have numbers.
“I found it,” Howard points.
The first men on the moon were not more ecstatic.
“There’s a parking lot back a few buildings,” Howard says. “You can park there.”
Before I find a place to turn around, we pass an empty meter. I slow the car, surveying its size.
“You can’t get in there, the space is too small.” Howard makes his comment sound like an indisputable statement of fact. Which, of course, must be disputed.
I move into action. Pull even with the car in front of the little space. Sight my surroundings deliberately. Think a moment. Then slowly, slowly back into the right position and angle in.
Women aren’t supposed to be good at this maneuver, but I have mastered it. Perhaps it was the practicing I did every weekend after the trauma of failing my first driver’s license test because parallel parking unglued me in stereotypical female fashion. I was sixteen. Or perhaps it was the sewing lessons Momma made me take which proved to be great training for all sorts of things requiring hand/eye coordination.
Mostly it has to do with showing off.
My VW hugs the curb with just the proper distance in front and back of it to be courteous to the other parked cars. The lights and the ignition are off.
“Let’s go,” I smile and unfasten my seatbelt. Howard forgoes a corresponding smile as he undoes his belt and opens the car door. We cross the street and head for Jezabel’s.
Howard’s estimation that Jezabel’s has the markings of an “in” place is accurate. It is another storefront, smaller than Angelina’s, but certainly appealing to the same crowd. Rustic describes the decor.
Howard opens the door and walks in first. I assume he knows I am with him, because he holds the door until I catch the handle and pass through. Perhaps sensitive men feel women want to be equal in social situations, but I’m beginning to think I’ve demonstrated enough independence for one evening.
The inside of Jezabel’s is one huge room with as much area as possible given to little tables for two. Most of them are occupied; but, for the number of diners in the restaurant, it is surprisingly quiet. The intimacy is palpable. The waiting area is the size of a doormat, which means Howard and I huddle together. But it is temporary. He walks approximately five feet forward to where there is a tall podium behind which a man in a tuxedo shirt and tie but no coat is checking his reservations list.
“We have a reservation.” Howard begins. “Under the name, Mr. B. That’s me. We’d like nonsmoking and near the window if possible.”
“Yes, sir,” the maitre d’ is as starched as his shirt. He scans the list. “Here we are, but you were supposed to be here at 7:15. I’m sorry, sir, it is our policy to hold tables for 15 minutes. I cannot accommodate you immediately, but if you would like to wait I will give you the first available table. I cannot promise a window either.”
“How long will it be?”
“I cannot say, sir. But there are several couples who are finishing their coffee. Perhaps you would like to have a seat at our bar in the back and I will come for you as soon as your table is ready.”
Mr. B. shakes his head. He doesn’t want to wait at the bar. Mr. B. takes up guard duty right by the counter, leaving me to my own devices.
So far, we have spent the entire evening working on the arrangements for the evening. There hasn’t been a minute of pleasant conversation, only feeble attempts that were overshadowed by driving or parking instructions. Even now Howard can’t shake it off and talk. He watches the maitre d’s every move, especially when he returns to the podium. Together they peer at the list of reservations, while Howard taps his foot. The maitre d’ walks off again without inviting us to sit down. Howard yells after him.
“We’ve been waiting almost ten minutes. When will our table be ready?”
“Sir, it won’t be long now.”
There is a small upholstered chair to the right of the counter. I spied it when we first walked in. But just as I’m about to make a move toward it, Howard, who is closer, plops himself down and folds his arms in visible exasperation. Conversation is impossible. Finally, the maitre d’ returns and announces that our table is ready.
“It’s about time,” grumbles Howard.
I say “Thank you,” followed by a smile that caresses the maitre d’ in the hope of separating his opinion about Howard from his opinion of me.
We parade single file to a small table about midway back in the restaurant and along the side. There is one soft, almost couch-like chair against the wall and one straight-back chair in the aisle. Howard takes the comfy one, leaving me to pull out the other. The maitre d’ assists, allows a pause for us to settle in, and then asks about cocktails.
“Nothing for me,” says Howard, glancing my way as if to say, “Let’s eat.”
“I’d love a cocktail.”
And I offer another charming smile to the maitre d’. “I’ll have vodka on the rocks with two limes.” I hold up two fingers to emphasize two limes. “Your house vodka is fine.”
“Ah, signora,” the maitre d’ smiles back, almost flirtatious. “Permit me to offer our best brand, compliments of the house, because you were so kind to wait.”
“Why, thank you.”
Mr. B. glowers at the departing maitre d’, the other diners, and me. Then, pulling a pair of glasses from his jacket, he turns his full attention to the handwritten menu resting next to his silverware.
“There are not a lot of heart healthy items here. Broiled chicken,fresh halibut. Perhaps the whitefish will do. And you might as well order something equally expensive, because . . .”
“You have a coupon,” I finish his sentence.
I have already decided, by just scanning the menu, that veal is my choice. I have a feeling it will be good here; and, frankly, I don’t care whether it costs more or less or if it clogs my arteries. I can be a female Howard when I want.
Our server arrives with vodka in hand. From the pin on his shirt, I see his name is Roberto. He places the drink in front of me; and I make a big production of squeezing the two lime slices that balance on the rim of the glass, gently muddling the vodka with the stir stick, tinkling the ice, and finally taking the first sip. It is absolutely Russia’s best export, even better than the foreign exchange student I sampled in college.
“Please thank our host,” I tip Roberto with another smile.
“But before you do, please take our order,” Mr. B. will not be denied.
Fish and veal orders go off to the kitchen for preparation, and bread arrives at the table. Howard must find the bread satisfactory as he eats two slices, washes them down with water and breathes a big sigh. Finally he turns his attention to me for the first time this evening.
“What did you say you do for a living?”
“I work downtown for an executive search firm.” It is my most recent Manpower gig. I transcribe resumes.
“You mean a headhunter?”
“We prefer the term ‘executive search firm.’ The level of positions we are trying to fill is upper, upper management.”
“Sounds like a headhunter to me.”
I am not particularly invested in my job, so arguing synonyms isn’t worth it. Besides, I’m mentally making a list of synonyms that describe Howard. Words like picky, critical, and fussy. I slowly sip Jezabel’s best vodka, swirl it around my mouth, and swallow. It feels great.
Howard doesn’t notice that my side of the conversation is lagging. He tells me about his experience with a ‘headhunter’ and that when the job was finally offered to him, it wasn’t at all what he had been led to believe. Then he segues into the coupon.
“I’d better mention to the waiter about my coupon. Your veal was $16.95 and the fish was $18.95, so yours will be the one that they deduct.”
Our salads arrive and Roberto wonders if I want another vodka. My head bobs vertically as I swallow the last cold drop of this one. Howard’s eyebrows rise to the up position. Perhaps he is concerned that I am both the designated driver and the designated drinker, or perhaps he is concerned about money.
“Don’t worry, Howard. This is my last.” I say. “And given that I am the only one drinking, I’ll pay for my own vodka. After all, the first one was free, so I only owe for the one coming.”
Howard’s eyebrows knit together and begin to slide down his nose, but he says nothing. Roberto moves away as we address our salads. It is almost 8:45 and lunch was a thousand years ago. We chew through lettuce, tomato, and onion in silence as my second vodka arrives. Even with a mouthful of cucumber, I nod to the server and he gives me a knowing wink.
“I wonder if this is low fat dressing.” Howard forgets he chose the dressing himself. “I try to watch my fat intake.”
“So do I. Vodka has no fat.”
He shakes his head.
“Tell me about yourself, Howard. What do you do?”
“Me? I retired at fifty. I’m fifty-two now. I dabble in the market now and then, but mostly just relax. I have a pretty set routine. I get up early and walk along the lake. Sometimes I bike. That’s why I put those things in my ad. You can see the lake from my apartment window.”
I remember his ad in the Personals. Words like fit, youthful, friendly. In all honesty, he appears relatively fit. It’s obvious he has watched his fat intake for quite a while. But as far as youthful and friendly, I’m trying to figure out what dictionary defines those terms as synonyms for cranky. I don’t for a minute think Jezabel’s is his idea of simple pleasures either.
Conversation strains as we await our entrees. Howard knows what I do for a living, but doesn’t pursue the particulars. He doesn’t ask leading questions like, “How do you find applicants,” or “What kind of positions does your firm fill?’ Instead, he pulls at his collar and comments about how he confused Angelina’s with Jezabel’s. How we didn’t need permission to park in the grocery store lot in the first place.
Finally, the fish and veal make their grand entrances and bow in front of our respective places. Roberto removes our salad plates, which are naked except for the alfalfa sprout mound on Howard’s.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?”
“I want salt,” commands Howard.
Roberto nods, then looks at me.
“I’m fine. This looks very good.”
Howard grabs his knife and fork to prod his fish. I spend a moment admiring the presentation of my veal on its dinner plate. Fine dining is an evening’s entertainment, something that is enjoyed slowly, almost savored. It’s a symphony of tastes and textures on the tongue.
Howard cuts and chomps.
Salt and the side of pasta that accompanies my veal arrive. Our little table is becoming crowded.
“You can remove the bread,” Howard directs. “We don’t want it anymore. Take the butter too.”
I don’t remember agreeing to give up the bread, but it isn’t worth contradicting him. Nodding in agreement, I take my knife and fork, look lovingly at the symmetry that is my veal, and cut into it. The first bite tells me it was as carefully chosen as I’d thought.
Meanwhile Howard B. has found a bone.
“That’s the trouble with fish; you can never be sure if it’s been filleted properly. I’m very particular about that. Choking on a fish bone is dangerous.”
And he loudly summons the waiter to point out the bone. You would have thought he required mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or a Heimlich maneuver. However, there is a finite number of things one can say about discovering a single bone in an entire portion of fish, so the server simply lets Howard vent until he runs out of steam. In the same amount of time, I finish the veal.
Roberto removes our plates as Howard puts his napkin on the table.
“And would either of you like coffee?”
Howard is about to answer for both of us, but I beat him to the punch.
“Why, yes, I would love some coffee. Regular with two creams, please.” And my two fingers go up again.
“And you, sir?”
Howard reluctantly nods a yes that is a no in disguise and repositions his napkin.
“Decaf for me.”
The coffee arrives in little China cups on dainty saucers with a separate China pitcher of cream full to the brim. It is the sort of coffee service one lingers over, the type of ending to a perfect dinner where couples plan how they will consummate their relationship. They may even begin by holding hands across the tiny table.
But personal conversation lags. So I try compliments.
“This is a lovely place, Howard. Thank you for thinking of it.”
The waiter subtly places the check on Howard’s side of the table when he refills our coffee cups. Howard studies it, using his finger for a pencil and adding the columns. Finding no math mistakes is a major disappointment.
“And how much do I owe you?” I ask.
“Without a tip but with the vodka, minus the coupon, the bill is almost thirty dollars.”
“It’s customary to tip on the entire amount.”
Mr. B’s eyebrows do their knitting thing.
“Well, why don’t we just split the total in two, and you leave the tip?” Howard directs. “That way, it will offset the vodka.”
And he lays fifteen dollars on the table.
I pull my wallet from my purse and slide out a fifty-dollar bill. By the look on Howard’s face, he does not have change.
What does a sensitive woman do when she needs change? If her escort cannot help, she signals the busboy who signals the waiter who tells the maitre d’ who wants to make the sensitive woman happy. Once this chain of command runs its course, the maitre d’ brings the money to the table.
“Here you are, Ma’am. A twenty, two tens and two fives, as you requested.”
I reach across and slide Howard’s money and the bill closer to my coffee cup and add my fifteen dollars to them. The maitre d’ waits and watches.
“This is for the bill. And Roberto was so kind, I want to give him the tip in person when we are ready to leave.”
“Of course, signora. Would you like more coffee?”
But Howard waves the maitre d’ away.
“I have coffee at home.” He says. Directing his comments to me, he adds, “I made it this morning and you can have some.”
Why do I think this will not be gourmet coffee? That it may be the instant variety and is probably sitting in an old pot without a lid in his refrigerator, the type of cast iron pot you make greasy popcorn in?
“I don’t think so, Howard. I prefer fresh.”
His face registers confusion, then conviction.
“You are not attracted to me, are you? That’s why you don’t want to come to my place.”
Forget the fact that I haven’t received an formal invitation to accept coffee or refuse it.
“Frankly, Howard, I don’t think your idea of simple pleasures and mine are not the same.”
“That’s funny; most women think I’m charming.”
“I am not most women. And I did think your offer of chicken soup last week was rather charming. But I won’t be coming to your apartment for coffee.”
Mission Control is screaming “Abort. Evacuate the area.”
He is still trying to figure it out as I rise.
Out loud, Mission Control says: “Just assume I require higher maintenance than you are comfortable with.”
I position the strap of my handbag over my shoulder and turn toward Jezabel’s kitchen where I ferret out our waiter and hand him a twenty-dollar bill.
“The gentleman I had dinner with? He needs a drink. Tell him his former date wants to buy him one. And keep the change, Roberto.”
I reach to shake Roberto’s hand; but, instead of shaking mine in return, he draws it to his lips for a brief kiss. It evokes a smile. Then I walk from Jezabel’s into the beautiful night air.
A few minutes later, I unlock the driver’s side of my geriatric car and slide in.
excerpted from the book, SWF Seeks M.